- 16th April 2018
- Posted by: Manolis
Around one in every 1,000 people in the UK is an amputee. Losing a limb through an accident, illness or military action is incredibly traumatic, but rehabilitation can also be a challenge. Currently, if you lose your hand, there are two prosthetics the NHS will most commonly provide, both of which are fairly rudimentary.
“You can get a hook-type prosthetic, [which is] super primitive, or you can get a gripper prosthetic, which just open and closes. It’s a very simple mechanical action,” says Samantha Payne, the 26-year-old woman behind Open Bionics, an award-winning robotics firm changing the world of prosthetics. Bionic hands with multi-grip functionality, she adds, cost up to £60,000 from private providers. “They’re just too expensive for amputees.”
Payne met her business partner, Open Bionics co-founder and robotics engineer, Joel Gibbard, in 2013. She was working as a journalist at the time and interviewed Gibbard, then a robotics graduate. “His big dream was to make an open-source robotic hand that amputees around the world could take the files and [3D] print their own hands at home,” she says. “I thought that was an incredibly inspiring idea.”
The pair co-founded Open Bionics in Bristol in 2014 and have gone on to win numerous awards, including the James Dyson gong for innovative engineering. The company uses 3D scanning and printing to revolutionise the prosthetic design and fitting process. It estimates the cost for a personalised bionic hand will be under £5,000 and take a fraction of the time to build.
“Prosthetics have to custom fit every individual user and the software also has to work with [them],” Payne says. “The big innovation, and how we’re saving money, is by changing the materials that prosthetics are made of [and] by using 3D scanning to take the initial fitting. It takes about two minutes, and we can then build the socket in 24 hours.”
It’s a particularly significant development for those children born without hands. The team has created a bionic hand light and small enough for those as young as eight – groundbreaking in the prosthetics field. Older children outgrow their prosthetics quickly, often changing them once or twice a year, which makes a low-cost option appealing. A royalty free agreement between Open Bionics and Disney also means they can choose from bionic hands based on the characters from Iron Man, Frozen and Star Wars. Payne says the feedback they’ve received from parents so far has been particularly rewarding.
“They’ve been waiting for this since their child was born or gone through an amputation, but had been told it’s 20 years down the line. Every time we do any sort of user testing, it reaffirms to the team what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. It motivates us to push harder and faster.”
This month, the company is starting an NHS trial with children and young people living with disability, after winning funding from the Small Business Research Initiatives scheme. The £100,000 award will support a six-month trial to demonstrate the feasibility of the technology and product.
“It was probably our biggest milestone in terms of getting this bionic hand to amputees,” Payne says. “If that goes well and does everything we think it will, we’ll be offered the chance to apply for £1m grant money to roll the product out across all NHS clinics. That’s what we’re hoping to achieve this year. This will be miles ahead for the NHS.”
Technology companies are often backed to the hilt by external investors, but not in this case, despite having “some really good investment opportunities”. Payne says it was a conscious decision to bootstrap the business and use research grants and competition winnings to fund the necessary research and development. The firm also produces robotic hands for humanoid robots, which are readily assembled and shipped to order.
They’ve recently closed their first and only seed round (the exact amount is off the record, but it’s modest) to gain market traction and recruit sales and marketing support now the bionic hand is ready. They’re currently a team of 12, primarily made up of male and female robotics, software and mechanical engineers. Payne is proud of the gender balance they’ve managed to achieve in a sector that is still notoriously difficult for women to conquer.
“For an advance robotics company, it’s really rare to have 50:50 gender ratio in engineering. I did proactively try to further my reach [when we were hiring]. I knew that all of our online channels had a big male following, so rather than just post our job opportunities out to those circles, I did [engage with] women in tech groups too. I really believe the best products are made by diverse engineering teams.”
She adds that their commitment to keeping the product code open source, which means anyone can inspect and modify it, has also contributed to their success so far. One American veteran who had lost his arm in Afghanistan once got in touch to say he’d found their code while researching prosthetics, and had downloaded the file to make his own 3D printed hand. In the future, the team hopes to expand their expertise beyond hands, into artificial legs, ankles, knees and exoskeletons for people who have suffered strokes or paralysis. There are also plans to partner with charities, universities and research institutions globally to bring the technology to developing countries.
“It’s a stretch for a small team to do [all of] this,” Payne adds. “But we’re working with lots of different people around the world all the time. [Being open source] enables the research community to take our work and develop it, and then share it back [to us]. The value we get out of it is much higher than any threat to business.
“The bionic industry is vast and it started way before we came along but it feels great to be adding research and development to [such a] meaningful technology. We’ve developed something that’s smaller, stronger and faster than something someone else has done. [That’s] really exciting.”